On Being a Lensgrinder

I’ve always loved the word “league,” and not just for the superhero connotation, though I confess a preference for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen over the Justice League, if we’re talking about superheroes and the word “league,” but that’s not the kind of league I’m specifically referencing. 

Many years ago, I had an idea for a fake secret society. I have always highly enjoyed Secret History and High Weirdness, and the combination thereof is something I’ve bounced around in my head since I was a wee one. Various things I’ve written or enjoyed over the years fit in the bosom of those two ideas. 

During the days of MySpace, I thought it would be fun to make a group (were they called groups? I can’t remember) that would consist of creative people making a living doing something other than what they created. It seemed to fit a lot of my friends: artists or creatives of one kind or another who worked. I thought it would be a fun space to talk about creativity and the Struggle of Being Creative, which is a very overwrought and dramatic way of looking at what I’m talking about, but also very on-brand for me during those years. I started the MySpace group and invited a bunch of people to do it with me and I never did anything more with it.

The idea, and the name of the group, stuck in my brain. Like any good idea, it found its way back into my forebrain. First, let me discuss the two central influences on this secret society, and how you might relate to it.

Secret World

I don’t even know if I can call this a subgenre, or what. It’s more of a setting, which isn’t a genre, and it can encompass lots of genres. The idea is this: the world you think you know is merely a patina, and the real world, the one happening under the surface, is the actual history. 

The most obvious example of this from recent pop culture is the Harry Potter series. There’s a world of muggles, or our world, and a world of wizards, where magic is real. The two overlap sometimes, but especially with the main character, who is the audience’s ambassador from our world into the secret one. 

When you start noticing this trope you see it everywhere, especially in children’s entertainment, where shortcuts to the Good Stuff are important and you need to quickly explain how there could be, for instance, the children of the greek gods living among us. The easiest thing to do is say “oh, they were always here, you just didn’t notice it.” It’s much faster and more efficient than writing an entirely new world from the ground up. 

As a creator, it frees you up to focus on the weird bits. The history we’re used to still happened, but so did all of these other weird things. You can slip in and out of history at your leisure. You need to be concerned, however, because if you have super powered good guys living even in a world next to ours and interfacing with our history once in a while, you gotta explain how things like 9/11 or the Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide happened. 

High Weirdness

This is one of my favorite things in the world, and just thinking about it makes me giddy. It kind of started in the 1970s, frequently cited along with the emergence of the popularity of Alan Watts (guilty), psychedelic drugs (never tried ‘em), Philip K. Dick (guilty), and a few others. 

The X-Files explored a big chunk of this weirdness in ways that were familiar, so that’s a good place to start. That’s probably the first Weird thing that I encountered, and influenced my thinking. 

But another herald of Weirdness was Robert Anton Wilson, who co-wrote the Illuminatus! Trilogy, which I read when I was a teenager, and which rewrote some of my brain engrams. Great art does that. It changes you, makes you think of the world differently. I don’t know if that book is great art in the canonical sense, but it was pretty influential to me. 

Weirdness has some of its many tentacles in Secret History, which is probably why they’re so often taken together. 

There’s a book called High Weirdness, by Erik Davis, and it “explores the way modern networked society tends to inspire revivals of hermetic and other occult traditions.” 

This is from a review of the book from the LA Review of Books:

“The core of High Weirdness is a careful study of three major “psychonauts” — Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and Philip K. Dick — all of whom, under the influence of far-out fictions, esoteric doctrines, and various controlled substances, were bombarded by a series of hallucinatory visions that were arguably mystical and indubitably life-changing.”

What comes out of that tradition is possibly meaningless noise that coalesces occasionally into tantalizing glimpses into the fabric of the universe. That’s my definition, and what I love about it. 

The best example of both things is a video game, of all things, called Control. I won’t get into what it’s about, but this synopsis from Wikipedia is pretty solid:

“Control revolves around a clandestine U.S. government agency known as the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC), which is responsible for the investigation of “paranatural” phenomena which defy the known laws of reality. These phenomena manifest in the form of Altered World Events (AWEs), intrusions upon perceived reality shaped by the human collective unconscious. These AWEs affect archetypal objects and give them unique properties; referred to as Altered Items by the Bureau, they are contained within their headquarters at the Oldest House, an enormous Brutalist skyscraper in New York City. Objects of Power are connected to the Astral Plane, an alternate dimension housing the Board, a pyramid-shaped entity which ordains the Bureau’s leadership through a ritual connected to the Service Weapon, an Object of Power.” 

I know, that’s a lot to take in. There won’t be a quiz at the end, so you don’t need to know the specifics. 

The SCP

Control kind of came out of something called the SCP Foundation, which is a lot like what the game is trying to do, but with even weirder origins. It started as a single post on 4 chan (before that site became what it is now) and consists mainly of a collective fiction wiki experiment with thousands of unconnected but also possibly interconnected stories written in a deadpan, government style, inspired by things like official government reports. They’re at turns funny and absurd and deadly serious, which just makes it more absurd. 

While I think the SCP is great and fantastic, it’s not the first of its kind. I remember reading many similar things on BBSs and Prodigy forums in the 90s. All of it was legitimately inspired by things like the Illuminatus! Trilogy, The Church of the Sub Genius and an abiding interest in the occult. The SCP is just another iteration of the ideas originally put forth by the three gentlemen referenced above, but they themselves were just accessing a continuum of oddness and off-kilter unusual things that have been around for as long as humans have.

I’m Trying Here

I’m trying very hard to describe what I’m trying to communicate, but it feels like the words slip away just when I get my hands around them. This is a Weird story waiting to be written: a concept that can only be referenced, never addressed directly, something that can be suggested but never directly identified. 

This is all leading to something

I have started another substack. Now, bear with me. It’s not just me this time, I have Evelyn Pryce and Robert Long Foreman along on the ride with me. We’re talking about art and writing and creativity and stories. We’re going to have lots of guests to talk about their art and their stories. Among the three of us we have a lot of experience writing different things and talking to them about it is some of the most fun I’ve had in ages. While it’s going to be a podcasty thing with regular episodes (I dunno how frequently yet), we’re going to publish stuff, too! Fiction, nonfiction, all kinds of stuff. I’m excited about it. You should subscribe, because it’s going to be entertaining. I promise. 

It’s called the League of Lensgrinders, and you can subscribe here.

It’s going to be great.


Recommendation: the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Remove the movie from your mind, this isn’t about that. The comic is a magnum opus, a dense visual love letter to pop culture through the ages and, more specifically, British history. It takes its premise as what if all of these fictional things were the true things that mirrored our actual history. For instance, instead of Adolf Hitler, the world of the League has to deal with Adenoid Hynkel, who was the Hitler stand-in used by Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator. 

What began as a story with the premise “hey all these fictional characters from this one period of pulp literature actually fit the rough outlines of the modern superhero team trope” turned into something so very much more. I highly recommend Jess Nevins’s http://jessnevins.com/annotations.html work annotating each panel of the comic, each of which is chock full of references.  

The later volumes follow Orlando (or Roland, who had a dark tower), immortal and switching sexes as the years roll on. It’s a lovely celebration of the rollicking adventure stories and a stinging indictment of colonialism and English centralism. I love Alan Moore, for all of his flaws, he truly does love to tell good stories and that is always his chief aim. He almost always delivers. His collaborator, Kevin O’Neill, is clearly having a great deal of fun packing the backgrounds with references you need a library to decode. 

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